With bigger prizes still in front of them, the LSU gymnastics team knows a third-place finish at the Southeastern Conference championships two weeks ago won’t define its season.
Yet, it didn’t stop the Tigers from showing some disappointment in taking third behind Florida and Alabama, which isn’t such a bad thing heading into the final two-week stretch of the season.
“After the SECs, we had a fire inside us,” junior All-American Ashleigh Gnat said when the Tigers returned to the gym. “We’re ready to get back out on the competition floor.”
That’s exactly what coach D-D Breaux wanted to hear from her team, which is ranked third and is the No. 3 national seed, going into the NCAA regional at 3 p.m. Saturday in Athens, Georgia.
LSU (18-4, 6-1 SEC) is the top-seeded team in the Athens regional and needs only to finish among the top two teams to earn a spot in the national semifinals on April 15 in Fort Worth, Texas.
Joining LSU are Georgia, the No. 10 national seed; Oregon State, the No. 15 national seed; Arizona, George Washington and Michigan State.
The NCAA identifies only the top 16 national seeds for the six regional competitions being held around the country Saturday.
Gnat said LSU is well-rested and prepared to go after its fourth consecutive regional title after scoring a 197.500 at the SEC championships.
“It’s exciting. … We’ve worked really hard to get exactly where we are,” she said. “These off weeks drag out a little bit. They make us a little more anxious, ready and excited to compete again — especially in these types of environments.”
This time, it’s Georgia’s Stegeman Coliseum — the site of LSU’s only SEC regular-season loss back on Feb. 13. The Tigers scored a 196.800, well below their regional qualifying score of 197.695, while the GymDogs had a 197.525.
Still, the one that bothered LSU the most was the SEC meet.
After scoring 197-high for most of the season, the Tigers were just a little off as Florida won with a 197.775 and Alabama was second at 197.750.
“We weren’t horrible,” Breaux said. “We were horribly disappointed, but the performance would have won a lot of meets ... even a lot of conference meets.
“The kids were disappointed. It was like they were hit in the gut and said, ‘What happened?’ What happened was we didn’t have the focus. We did not have that mental edge we’ve had all season long and kind of got distracted by the bigness of the event.”
But that’s in the past, Gnat said.
“We’re definitely still in a good place,” she said. “Just missing by a small amount shows us how much potential we have going forward in the postseason. It wasn’t a huge margin we lost by, but as we move forward we can see we have so much more potential.”
The Tigers are well-rested going to regionals after the school had spring break following the SEC meet. That allowed the gymnasts to relax a little mentally and physically before getting back into preparation mode this past week.
“I think it was really important for us to rest mentally,” freshman Sarah Finnegan said. “It’s a long season, especially as freshmen because we’re not used to competing every weekend. We had spring break and a bye week, so it was really great for us.”
The key going into the meet, Breaux said, is refocusing and doing what they’ve been doing all season.
“We want to win and we want to come out of it with a lot of momentum and positive energy,” she said. “We may have talked too much about the bigness of the (SEC) meet. We’re not having any conversation about that, we’re strictly focused on one more performance.”
Follow Sheldon Mickles on Twitter, @MicklesAdvocate.